Having abandoned my television and cable bill about 10 years ago, I was left unawares when I’d heard Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) had been made famous.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the show, LIVE PD, on A&E. Essentially it’s a 21st century reboot of the show, C.O.P.S. That’s not to say it isn’t unique. Instead of bouncing around the country between episodes like the 90’s hit, LIVE PD, follows a particular law enforcement department for an entire season, and as the name entails the footage is broadcast in realtime.
Sergeant Steve Tappler, who’s been featured on the show several times, happens to be a friend of mine. I don’t get to see him much
since his rank and responsibilities increased with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD), and children entered the picture for he and his wife. But once in a while he’ll show his face, and during one of his cameo appearances, we talked about the show. He’d asked our group of friends on multiple occasions to “ride-along” with him, and now the offer couldn’t be refused given his reality TV stardom.
He runs a squad of RCSD deputies out of Region 4, which covers the areas around River Drive, Broad River Road, Greystone Boulevard, St. Andrews, and parts in between. Additionally, they cover northwesterly areas of the county toward Chapin. They’re spread thin, riding alone, and covering large swaths of the map. Even at 100+ miles per hour on the interstate, they might be 20 minutes away from a comrade requiring backup on the outskirts of the county.
We rendezvoused at Region 4 headquarters where I met the rest of his squad during shift change. My ride-along with them would be from 2 PM to 2 AM, between the day and night shifts. The door from the motorpool opened into the kitchen and breakroom, where appliances and office furniture looked 1990’s vintage. It’d clearly been a while since the place had money thrown its way.
I peeked around the corner and saw Steve with other deputies seated around a long table in the middle of a large open space; a couple of other deputies leaned against the desks along the back wall. They quieted down as I entered the room, not sure why I was there.
“Everyone, this is Oliver. He’s the guy riding with me tonight,” Steve said. He introduced me to the station captain and lieutenant, as well as the other deputies. They were diverse in race, gender, rank, and even nationality. Not a bunch of “bubbas” with guns and badges.
After the introductions, I grabbed a seat at the long table in the middle of the room. Everyone else chewed the fat, talking about what they’d seen and done during the day shift.
By their nature, humans desire belonging, and I coveted the moment I’d be able to chime in with them, establishing my belonging to the group. Finally, my opportunity arrived when one of the female deputies seated at the desks addressed me.
“I like your glasses. You look like Waldo from the Where’s Waldo books.” My antique round frames often get attention, be it positive or negative. “Hey, deputy,” I said slightly rising from my chair and pointing in her direction, “that’s Harry Potter to you.”
Everyone chuckled and I felt satisfied having seized my moment to belong, and I continued building rapport, catching a few other chances thrown my direction. During the following half hour or so, the captain and I devoured a bag of Fritos scoops together; that had to mean something.
We waited for the paddy wagon to pick up someone arrested under a bench warrant. He’d neglected to pay a traffic violation. His clean style and calm demeanor invalidated any assumptions of a hardened criminal. He was offered water and sodas and allowed to use his cell phone while the paddy wagon slowly carved it’s way through grid-locked traffic. They felt bad for having to process him but as law enforcement officers, they had no choice. Once the paddy wagon arrived and the paper work was completed, the night shift convened and we readied ourselves for whatever lay ahead.
Soon after we hit the road, we received a call from dispatch just before 6:30 PM. A middle-aged African-American woman passed out from heat exhaustion in the middle of Broad River Road. She lay unconscious in the middle of a busy intersection, just outside of the median. The Good Samaritan, an elderly African-American man, stopped traffic and pulled her out of the road. When we arrived on-scene, a couple of Steve’s deputies were already there and the EMS crew had revived her. I saw she wasn’t sweating which is one of the tell-tale signs of heat illness. Through muddled speech, she asked where her purse had gone. The man who rescued her said he found no purse or wallet and she started crying. Tempted by easy money in the midst of such crushing poverty, it was likely picked up nefariously as she lay unconscious in the intersection.
After a statement was taken, we resumed patrol, but only briefly; dispatch hailed units in the area to a domestic dispute. Steve snatched the hand-mic from its hook.
“10-8. We’re on the way.”
En route to the call, we avoided as much traffic as possible by taking streets and throughways unfamiliar to me. These areas were little nooks and crannies in Region 4, places likely to see anything from a domestic dispute to a drug deal gone bad.
We passed a house familiar to Steve, whereupon they found the decomposing body of someone overdosed on recreational drugs.
“People out this way probably thought it was a deer or something. That’s why they didn’t report it for a while, until the smell continued to linger,” he said.
Turning onto a gravel road, I looked for the address given us by dispatch.
“I don’t like to roll right up to a domestic dispute. You never know what you’re gonna get. Traffic stops and domestic disputes are typically some of the most dangerous calls,” he said.
Steve slowly advanced the cruiser, parking strategically to prevent the escape of a perpetrator. We saw a man and woman arguing in the front yard of a dilapidated country house with a rusted metal roof. It was mostly blue in color, but was adorned with several tin-sheet patches, flanked on its left by rusted vehicles and clothes on the line, and on its right by a garden bed overrun with weeds.
A small wiry boy with thick glasses, faded black jeans, and a X-Men t-shirt chased a little dog around an oak tree as Steve approached the adults. They were middle-aged and apparently grandparents of the little boy. The two of them kept their grandson while his mother worked in a fast food restaurant. She would pick him up after her shift, very likely after the bedtime of most children her son’s age. The argument came to a head when the grandmother, being treated for mental illness, refused to take her medication. Her husband tried to deal with the situation, at first without the use of force, but after being attacked by his mentally-ill spouse, he fended her off, and fearing for the child’s safety retreated to the yard.
Steve had the situation well in hand and my attention turned to the little boy. He couldn’t have been more than 8 years old. I wondered what a day in his life must’ve been like.
Was he getting enough nutritious food to eat, or enough sleep at night after his mom picked him up?
Did he attend a good school, and did the other kids tease him for wearing glasses and dirty superhero t-shirts?
Would he learn how to make it out of here? What would become of him?
As dusk fell, Steve said there’d be a good chance we’d see a lot of action tonight.
“10 PM is when it starts popping off,” he said. He also referenced the temperature, noting when the weather is warmer, tensions flare much easier. I took advantage of the lull in the action to ask some questions. I’d already known Steve grew up in Pennsylvania and completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of South Carolina, but I’d never asked about work when we hung out.
“So when did you decide to be a cop?”
“In high school. I didn’t know what kind of cop I wanted to be, but I chose Carolina for college because of its criminal justice program. One of my fraternity brothers worked for RCSD, so I joined as soon as I graduated,” he said.
“How long have you been with them?”
“11 years,” he said excitedly. “I can’t believe it’s already been this long. I’ve got 14 more to go before I’m eligible for retirement. But I don’t have to retire at that age. There’s other work I can do for this department or some others. I’d still be pretty young.”
While thinking about how much he’d already seen and done in his career, another 14 years seemed like a lifetime.
“What sort of educational requirements are there to be a member of RCSD,” I asked.
“You need a four-year bachelor’s degree or military experience if you’ve never been in law-enforcement.”
Sheriff Leon Lott places a high value on education for his deputies, incentivizing them to go beyond a bachelor’s. Unfortunately, the salary is not commiserate with the risk they assume, or their level of education.
“What’s the pay like,” I asked.
Steve smiled and said, “Well it’s not that much. For a new deputy starting fresh, it’s $35,000 before deductions.”
“How can a new deputy raise a family on that?”
“You either have a partner that works, like I do, or you cut a few corners. Some apartment complexes allow you to live there at free or reduced rent. It’s handy for them having a law-enforcement officer on premises. You’re also permitted to work off-duty at special events.”
I felt angry and disappointed we didn’t compensate our department adequately, in my opinion, for the dangerous work they do. Community policing is the order of the day for RCSD, and they were doing it before the buzz word became cool in the media.
“I feel there’s more appreciation now in the community than in the past. People in our region are thanking us more often since the incidents (involving law enforcement) in other parts of the state and country.”
They’re a professional department to say the least. Each deputy is issued at least one body camera and they upload the footage as soon as possible after every call. Steve likes wearing the body cameras because he believes it keeps everyone honest; the law enforcement officers and citizens.
“What’s your favorite part of the job,” I asked.
“Everyday is different. I’m not stuck behind a desk expecting the same thing to happen. It’s exciting and rewarding, especially when I’m able to truly help somebody,” he said.
Our conversation drifted to how he runs his teams.
“I trust my deputies to do the right thing and try not to micromanage them. Of course, I let them know when they make a bad call, but even when it’s not the best discretion or the choice I’d made, I’ll have their backs as long as they stay within legal, moral, and ethical bounds,” he said.
The camaraderie shared between Steve and his deputies, in addition to riding around in patrol cars reminded me a little of my time in Iraq. We did presence patrols to dissuade insurgent activity. They did presence patrols to dissuade criminal activity. They joked and poked at each other just as we did. They also witnessed the best and worst of humanity, just as we did. Two men I served with in Iraq wore the badge. Sgt. David J. Murray, a friend from high school and member of 3rdplatoon with me, was killed in Iraq on June 9, 2005 while on patrol. He served as a sheriff’s deputy before deploying. Sgt. Kevin G. Stauffer was in 1st platoon and a member of the Tupelo Police Department. He survived our deployment, but gave his life in the line of duty eight years later during a bank robbery in Tupelo, Mississippi. On December 23, 2013, amid the joy of Christmas season, Kevin’s wife was widowed and two children lost their daddy.
Some time before 9:00 PM, dispatch called for a response to shots-fired, followed with a vehicle description and license tag number. The vehicle was found in another region of Richland County. The occupants were firing shots into the air as they drove, testing a firearm they’d just purchased. I hoped the expended ammunition fell harmlessly to the earth, not finding an innocent child or other unfortunate bystander.
As Steve predicted, the hours between 10 PM and 1 AM were a blur of responses to calls. More shots-fired, domestic disputes, drug arrests, and traffic stops. We responded to as many as we could. A request for back-up near Ballentine had us rolling down the interstate at 115 miles per hour. We arrived on scene at a bar where a fight took place. A woman received a blow to her face from her boyfriend, and another man had been injured coming to her defense. Steve took statements from the witnesses, all of whom had been watching the show, LIVE PD, at the bar when we arrived.
“Hey, you’re Tappler! I seen you on the show before,” one of the bystanders exclaimed excitedly. When they spotted me, not being in uniform, the assumption was made I was part of the camera crew. One of the bar patrons approached.
“Are you with the show? Are we gonna be on TV?”
“I’m afraid not. I’m writing an article for Midlands Anchor, but I can put you in the article if you’d like.”
“Nah, I’m good,” he said, being more excited at the prospect of reality TV infamy. He ambled along at a drunkard’s pace back into the bar. We learned the man fled on foot when he heard we were en route, and we searched the area but never found him. Giving up the search around 1:30 AM, we headed back to Region 4 substation.
Steve showed me the number of calls during the 2 PM-2 AM shift before we parted ways. The department-wide tally of responses for RCSD breached the 400 mark, though most citizens of Columbia and Richland County would be none the wiser. He assured me this was a quiet night. I thanked Steve and the deputies of Region 4 for the opportunity to ride with them. I’m not certain if I’ll take them up on the offer to ride again, but I’ll continue to sleep well, knowing they’re out there.